Police chief reaches out to Florida community where Black Lives Matter movement began

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BY GRACE TOOHEY
ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS

ORLANDO — As Black Lives Matter demonstrators protesting police brutality and calling for racial justice regain momentum across the country, Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith reached out to his community — which many cite as the movement’s birthplace — to answer questions about his agency and remind residents of their training, policies and programs aimed at serving the public.

The agency wants to be “as transparent as we can possibly be,” Smith said Tuesday evening at a hybrid in-person and virtual community meeting. The meeting was the first of four, where Smith and other city leaders took time to proactively address concerns and share information about their agencies. While Sanford became ground zero for Black Lives Matter protests in 2012 following the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black 17-year-old killed by George Zimmerman, demonstrators this summer have been comparatively much more sparse in the city just north of Orlando.

But City Manager Norton N. Bonaparte Jr. said seeing efforts to bring together police and the community, especially led by Smith, continues to build trust and partnerships.

“This is important,” Bonaparte said. “This is a demonstration of the police department wanting to reach out to the community.”

Smith took time to go through the “8 Can’t Wait” initiatives, which are eight policies pushed nationwide, including by former President Barack Obama, that have been shown to reduce police killings – almost all of which Smith said his agency already had specific policies to mandate. The agency recently added into policy a “duty to intervene,” or to stop excessive force by fellow officers, when they see it, a reform many have called for across the country after the shocking death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, where an officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes, eventually killing him.

Smith also reminded the community that Sanford police has continued to respond to community concerns, becoming the first Central Florida agency to implement the use of body cameras soon after he took helm of the agency in 2013, and more recently by forming the Community Engagement Public Safety Committee, which helps advise the police department.

A virtual attendee asked, through a Facebook comment, how many Sanford officers live in the city or in the community they patrol, and while Smith did not have the numbers on hand, he said they have multiple initiatives to make sure their officers are representative of the community. He said they just finished a cadet program that trained people who lived in the city to become officers, and many of them will graduate this summer. He also said that they plan to have one of their officers live in Seminole’s Warley Park, a new apartment complex designed to provide housing for formerly homeless people, to better support those residents.

But Smith balked at a question about calls to “Defund the Police,” which has become a common slogan among protesters nationwide proposing, partly, to reallocate funds from bloated police budgets and invest in services proponents say are better prepared to handle social problems like poverty and mental health.

“What would our country look like without the police; who is going to defend you?” Smith said. He did not address the calls for funding shifts, but did admit that police agencies, including his, need to continue to improve education and community engagement around policing.

Sanford Commissioner Patrick Austin, whose district was the intended audience for the first meeting, thanked Smith for his ongoing transparency.

“I believe we’re a national model of what police departments should be,” Austin said.

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